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Warning of 'Cramped and Unsanitary Conditions,' Advocates Urge US Governors to Release Inmates at Risk for COVID-19

The letter comes as calls mount globally for urgent government actions to limit the spread of the coronavirus in jails and prisons.

guard and inmate

"Those in our correctional facilities suffer cramped and unsanitary conditions, increasing the spread of contagious diseases behind bars," three experts at the Brennan Center for Justice noted Monday. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Amid growing calls worldwide for governments to take immediate action to limit the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons, a leading law and policy organization is pressuring U.S. governors to release inmates who are at risk for contracting the infectious disease and pose no threat to public safety.

Three experts at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School sent an open letter on Monday to governors urging the state leaders to use their full authority to release vulnerable incarcerated people for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, which in the United States has infected more than 368,500 people and killed over 11,000.

In the letter, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Brennan Center's Justice Program, along with senior counsels Ames Grawert and Taryn Merkl, outline specific actions they believe all 50 governors should immediately take:

  • Make full use of your clemency authority to commute the sentences of vulnerable people to time served, allowing their immediate release, or fashion other appropriate relief;
  • Expand your states' "good time credit" or equivalent programs to reduce overall incarceration;
  • Work with state prosecutors to keep people who have been convicted of crimes, but not yet sentenced, out of prison for the duration of this health crisis; and
  • Take steps to limit the damaging impact of criminal justice debt, including but not limited to court fees and fines.

The Brennan Center experts point out that "the United States leads the world in incarceration,' with over 5,000 jails and prisons nationwide, and "those in our correctional facilities suffer cramped and unsanitary conditions, increasing the spread of contagious diseases behind bars."

Eisen reiterated that warning in a statement Monday, saying: "Prisons and jails are ripe for staggering levels of COVID-19 infection, due to the close quarters and the limits on sanitation and personal hygiene. That makes everyone inside—those incarcerated and those on staff—sitting ducks for the virus."

Governors' responses to the coronavirus outbreak have varied. So far, 43 governors have issued stay-at-home orders for the general public. In terms of correctional facilities, Eisen noted, "some governors have addressed this crisis head on by reducing their states' prison populations, while others either haven't gone far enough or have ignored the pandemic's threat."

The experts' letter cites recent efforts of Democratic Govs. JB Pritzker of Illinois and Andrew Cuomo of New York to limit COVID-19's impacts on incarcerated populations through executive order. It also highlights that both of their states have correctional facilities that are already affected by the public health crisis.

"In Chicago's Cook County Jail, the number of positive COVID-19 cases tripled from 33 to 134 within the span of seven days," the letter says. "One of the people that contracted the virus described the jail as 'Disneyland for coronavirus.' Across the New York City jail system, 231 incarcerated people, 114 correctional officers, and 23 healthcare workers tested positive."

The letter details efforts in California, Colorado, and Iowa to reduce the spread of the virus among incarcerated populations. While offering praise for the steps that state leaders have taken so far, the experts call on governors to go further, emphasizing that many of them possess the power to grant clemency.

"Our governors have no time to waste," said Eisen. "They must safeguard the lives of those inside our correctional facilities, prisoners and staff, many of whom are at grave risk of serious illness or death."

The letter includes a link to a resource page on the Brennan Center's website that details formal policies that are being implemented at all levels of the criminal justice system in response to the ongoing pandemic.

This latest plea for governors to take action is part of a chorus of global experts and rights advocates who have spent the past few months raising concerns about COVID-19 ravaging incarcerated populations.

Mark Johnson, founder and chief executive of the U.K. charity User Voice, which works to improve the country's criminal justice system, wrote in an op-ed for the Guardian Monday that "what’s needed is a massive reduction in the prison population."

In late March, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet urged governments across the globe to "not to forget those behind bars" in their responses to the public health crisis, warning that "the consequences of neglecting them are potentially catastrophic."

"Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis," Bachelet said, including political prisoners and those detained for expressing critical or dissenting views.

Bachelet's spokesperson Rupert Colville repeated that demand Friday, explaining that "in countries that are doing very large prisoner releases, [they] have not been necessarily releasing those types of prisoners."

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